What went wrong? Everyone has their own reasons for why automakers are failing: Labor costs, oil, management, credit markets, et al. All have valid points. And, obviously there are multiple problems, not one issue.
But I have a very different theory and set of presriptions.
The problem isn't oil, it's the combustion engine and its legacy liabilties of intensive manufacturing, limited design and obsession with 'new car' sales paradigm.
Our great opportunity? The problem is based on how we build and sell cars, not how we fuel them. So let's focus on the platform of a post-combustion engine era of mobility.
How do we get there? You cannot summon the future on demand with band-aid solutions, you must enable it and wait for it to change.
Our priority should be to enable a multi-decade long transition that changes how cars are bought, sold, driven and upgraded.
21st Century Vehicles: Focus on Wheel-based Electric Motors, Energy Storage and Software...
MIT Technology Review has featured a research breakthrough in platinum free fuel cells that could significantly reduce costs for a unique type of fuel cell energy conversion devices.
A Wuhan University team led by Professor Lin Zhuang has developed an Alkaline Fuel Cell (AFC) using a new hydroxyl ion electrolyte that uses low cost nickel catalyst materials to react hydrogen and oxygen to create electrical current, heat and water.
NASA has used alkaline fuel cells (AFC) in space missions since the 1960s, but these types of fuel cells are not likely to be used in automobile or portable devices. They might best be suited for onsite power generation, which is still an enormous market. AFCs use a water-based electrolye that lets postive charged molecules pass, diverting negative charges into the current. They are very efficient (up to 70%) but do have their downsides. If the team of researchers can increase the protoype's 'modest' electricity output (50 milliwatts/sq centimeter at 60 ºC) it could help bring low cost alkaline fuel cells to market.
Why is this important to the future of energy? Understanding Fuel Cells & The Hype Cycle
Piezeoelectric materials convert mechanical changes into electrical current. As with everything else in the new energy sector, its future is being driven forward by materials scientists.
Earlier we featured breakthroughs at Texas A&M and also at Georgia Tech University on materials that generate small-scale electric currents when stretched or pressed.
There is talk of piezeoelectric iPods, but it is hard to imagine systems replacing batteries given the growth in electricity demand of portable gadgets. The best applications will likely be for sensors, microcontrollers, smart tags, and digital textiles that do not use high end processors.
Energy harvesting infrastructure?
Stories of energy harvesting dance floors have been circulating on energy and environmental blogs for months, but what about roads and railways that have more steady traffic?
Israel-based Innowattech claims to be the the first company to demonstrate industrial scale piezeoelectric solutions that 'harvest' energy from traffic moving over roads, railroads and airport runways. Their vision is to capture all the motion above ground into electricity for the local grid.
The obstacles to market are probably high given the demands of infrastructure and (very) conservative nature of structural engineers and regulators who build infrastructure for performance (not energy capture). Not to mention cost challenges in a down economy. But 'harvesting energy solutions' is a great meme and certaily has its role for future micro energy solutions. And who can argue the appeal of energy producing infrastructure and built environments?!
No where on Earth is this more a reality of tomorrow than China.
What happened? The People's Daily is reporting that on December 15th, construction began on the largest scale coal-electricity project cluster in China's energy construction history.
China has started simultaneous construction on eight coal power and chemical plants, and five mines to keep the plants operational.
China's Industrial Planning NDB site estimates that all the 8 power plants in it will form a thermal power generation base with a capacity up to 20,000 MW. (Compared to the Three Gorges Damn capacity is 22,500 MW)
Do they have enough supply? MiningNews reports that the Ningxia region has a proven coal reserves of 31 billion tonnes and potential reserve of 202.9 billion tonnes.
The Solar industry is growing up and going global. Now materials giant Dow Corning is investing $3 billion into basic materials for traditional photovoltaics and thin film solar.
The Chemistry side of Solar The full potential of solar energy depends on our ability to make big advances in materials science.
How quickly solar can grow depends on our ability to design nanoscale structures that maximize the conversion of photons into electricity, photons into heat, or photons into hydrogen. And how many utilities and consumers take the leap!
So when we see 'Big Chemistry' companies get involved in the solar industry materials market, that should be a signal of growth (and growth pains) ahead!
Dow goes Greenby Being Black Dow Corning Corporation has announced several billion dollars of investment to provide critical materials to the fast-growing solar technology industry for both glass based solar and carbon based thin film.
Dow Corning and its Hemlock Semiconductor joint venture will begin manufacturing high purity monosilane, a key specialty gas used to manufacture thin-film solar cells and liquid crystal displays (LCDs). Combined with the new $1.2 billion build up at a Clarksville, Tennesee facility and the $1 billion expanded monosilane plant in Hemlock, Michigan operations may add up to 34,000 metric tons of polysilicon capacity for the fast-growing solar industry. Construction of both the Michigan expansion and the new Tennessee site will begin immediately.
The thin film solar industry is going global. In the past few months we have seen manufacturing agreements that have connected companies based in the US, Italy, Japan, Korea, China and Turkey. And now we have the first major equity stake from a global energy giant Total.
Konarka partners with French oil giant Konarka has just announced on Monday that it received $45 million in equity financing from the U.S. division of French oil and gas giant Total. The arrangement also includes R&D agreements with Total’s chemical subsidiaries (Atotech, Bostik, Hutchinson, Sartomer) to further development of the startup’s thin-film, organic solar cell technology
With this stake, Total will become the leading shareholder with a 20% equity stake. This is its first major equity stake in a thin film maker, and will expand Total's current silicon-based solar portfolio with Photovoltech and Tenesol.
Materials Science solutions for Distributed Solar Power
In 1972 a team of futurists published the book Limits to Growth which explored long-term forecast models based on rapidly expanding global economic and population growth against finite natural resources.
While most people assumed that growth could continue unabated, Limits to Growth offered a shocking alternative scenario - overshoot and collapse. Their future? The modern industrial economy would expand beyond the legacy resource capacity of the planet as supplies plateaued and depleted faster than expected. The 'Overshoot and Collapse' future scenario was mostly ridiculed by mainstraem economists and political leaders.
Now the world's leading oil forecasting agency is hinting that this future is closer than expected with regard to our conventional oil supplies. They are calling for an 'energy revolution'.
For those who have followed the 'peak oil' conversation evolve, this is the most shocking admission on record from a leading global oil analyst. Birol acknowledges that the major differences between the IEA's World Energy Outlook report from 2007 were based on the 'wrong assumptions' of oil field decline rates. He admits that, until 2008, no organization has ever done a comprehensive global oil field decline rate survey.
Monbiot's annoynance with the IEA's failure to back their forecasts with actual data is priceless, and scary given the implications of IEA's role in providing governments with accurate oil forecasts. In 2007 the IEA said the decline rate asumption was 3%, now in 2008 they say data support 6-7%. At that rate, the world's conventional oil production plateau could happen between 2020-2030.
Birol says that the current path is "not (economically) sustainable" and the IEA is now calling for 'an energy revolution'. We think this should certainly start with global leaders pushing to Kill the Combustion Engine and taking away the liquid fuel fed energy device that makes us so dependent on oil.
What to watch: Peak Oil is about to go Mainstream The broad implications of peak production in conventional oil resources?
Electricity powers the future. And changing how electricity is produced, distributed and stored is arguably the greatest challenge for governments and business in the years ahead.
What needs to change?
1) The regulatory frameworks that shape the business models of public/private utlities
2) Addressing the physical decline (and disruption vulnerability) of aging and 'one-way' flow national electricity grids.
3) Advancing science and technologies that can enable new forms of grid management (e.g. software and sensors), energy storage (batteries, hydrogen and capacitors), and distributed power generation (solar, fuel cells).
These are big tasks, with no quick fixes. But now we have one of the biggest utilities in the United States, opening up a small door of opportunity for distributed power generation. It is not game-changing, but noteworthy!
What happened? 'Big Grid' embracing Distributed Power Generation? Utility giant Duke Energy has asked the North Carolina Utilities Commission(NCUC) to support a solar distributed generation program. Duke plans to install electricity-generating photovoltaic solar panels across several hundred North Carolina homes, schools, office buildings, shopping malls, warehouses and large manufacturing facilities – both on roofs and on the ground.
The plans have been slighly scaled back since the project's first announcement in June 2008, but Duke remains committed. According to a press release, Duke Energy Carolinas would own and operate the equipment, and the power produced by each installation would be used to serve the utility’s customers. So the electricity would not be owned and used by the host sites.
Should our bioenergy solutions be limited to what nature has provided?
Or if it was possible to improve upon the efficiencies of algae and microbes to 'eat' carbon to produce low cost, clean forms of energy- should we try to improve upon nature at the molecular level?
Many researchers have already answered - Yes.
Startups likeAmyris, LS9 and Synthetic Genomicsare developing commercial products.
The good news is that they are making progress. The bad news is that the public is totally unprepared to have a conversation about the idea of 'synthetic biology'. If leadership does not emerge soon to explain the benefits of bioenergy solutions, confusion and fear could soon outshine the promise of synthetic biology.
What happened at UCLA? Earlier we covered a breakthrough by Craig Venter's team in advancing synthetic biology and genome assembly. Now researchers at UCLA have engineered a synthetic biological pathway inside Ecoli bacteria to produce a next generation biofuel equivalent to gasoline.
The team led by Professor James Liao
inserted genes into the Ecoli, a well studied and commonly modified bacteria, to produce alcohol liquid fuels from sugar rich feedstocks. The butanol grade fuels have the same energy content equivalent, or better, of traditional gasoline.
"The ability to make these branched-chain higher alcohols so efficiently is surprising," according to Liao. "Unlike ethanol, organisms are not used to producing these unusual alcohols, and there is no advantage for them to do so. The fact taht they can be made by E. coli is even more surprising, since E. coli is not a promising host to tolerate alcohol. These results mean that these unusual alcohols in fact can be manufactured as efficiently as what evolved in nature for ethanol. Therefore, we now can explore these unusual alcohols as biofuels and are not bound by what nature has given us."
The future of energy systems will be shaped by our ability to control light, electrons and molecules.
If we expect to transform the world's largest industries then we need fundamental breakthroughs in materials science and engineering.
This is not the time for incremental improvements, or resting on strategies of 'consuming' green. This is the time to turn to science- chemistry, physics, and biology.
If we expect to use our natural resources more efficienctly, and create low cost solar cells, batteries and fuel cells, then we need to leap foward in our ability to manipulate and assemble chains (polymers) of hydrogen and carbon.
Now we are a step closer to realizing this new age of advanced materials science that enable leaps in performance and efficiencies.
What happened? A team of Oregon University researchers led byDr Marina Guenza,using data collected by European materials researchers, has developed a theory that could end the confusion over molecule behavior in the creation of polymer materials.
The new framework for explaining molecule movement might help lower costs and expand performance of materials used in the fields of engineering, nanotechnology, and renewable energy.